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Transparency Tips in the Age of Authenticity

According to a Nielson study, 84% of consumers trust recommendations about products and services from people they know. Why do consumers find these word of mouth connections so trustworthy? Because they expect friends and family members to be transparent in their recommendation, having nothing invested in the outcome aside from love of the product or service. Since those results were released 4 years ago, brands have been trying to match up to the power of word of mouth marketing by a variety of tactics, but the most important of these is the ever elusive transparency.

Social media’s always-on access and immediate content has made it easier than ever for brands to achieve transparency and thus, trust, with their customers, but fumbling still abounds. Think of Kmart’s post-Sandy Hook tweet that expressed sympathy and sadness for the victims, but rather insensitively added their hashtag #Fab15Toys at the end.

It’s somewhat difficult to provide tips or coaching on transparency because it seems like one of those things you either get or you don’t. If a friend were acting “fake” or projecting a persona that felt “put on,” how would you tell them to tone it down? How can you teach authenticity? Perhaps you can’t teach core authenticity--that comes from truly knowing and feeling comfortable with yourself or your brand--but maybe you can teach ways to communicate your story in an authentic way.

Here are a few transparency tips for those of us struggling to communicate our true selves.

Write a brand story. Tell it.

Transparency and storytelling go hand in hand. People respond to storytelling on an almost unconscious level, and are drawn to brands that have clear narratives. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, as though a brand’s “story” might seem “sales-y,” but the key is telling the right brand story. Where did you come from? Why does your product or service exist? What need are you filling and how are you filling it uniquely? Why do you have a passion about what you do? If you clearly communicate your passion, the right customers will empathetically connect to that passion.

Think about Birchbox, whose brand story is closely linked with the name. You know Birchbox, and you know the story of two women who found fault with the beauty industry, and wanted to change it. At every turn, on every platform, Birchbox returns to this story: two intrepid women, who are always the face of the company, fulfilling an overlooked need for the savvy, curious female customer they embody.

Write your brand story down. Cull from it quotes that can stand for a mission statement. Make it into a video. Draw your life. Have an artist render a drawing of it. Make a stop-motion movie of it. Get creative. Tell that story over and over again. If it’s true, it will come across that way to your audience, and a true story is a story that sells.

Go behind the scenes.

One of my favorite brands to follow on Snapchat is Everlane, an online-only clothing boutique out of San Francisco. They sell effortless, high quality California basics, and their Snapchat stories are always clean, simple, and very Californian (read: sunny and fun.) But that’s not the main reason I follow them. I follow them because they often use the Snapchat story function to feature their employees, many of whom seem to embody that brand spirit. They will spend a day following one employee, staging funny clips and showing some behind-the-scenes work of her throwing a party or modeling new clothes or setting up a fashion show. They’ll use their employees on Snapchat to announce secret pop-up shops, or to simply tell a funny story. When I’m watching their stories, it makes me feel like I know the brand even better by seeing behind-the-scenes content and getting to know their employees. It engenders brand affinity, in the most authentic way.


Use your employees. They might be excited about creating fun social content like short video clips telling customers who they are, why they joined the company, how long they’ve been there. Social is an awesome opportunity to make employee advocacy fun for your employees. As a bonus, it will also help supercharge your company culture.

Take risks.

One of the most poignant and telling brand risks I’ve seen this year is Ingrid Nilsen’s coming out on YouTube. A beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger, Nilsen’s brand was girly and approachable, young and fresh, friendly and PG. Sometimes her boyfriends were featured on daily vlogs. She has a cat, lives in LA, loves bright lipstick. So when earlier this summer she posted a coming out video, the YouTube community was shocked. For about three seconds. Then they embraced her and celebrated her. This, I believe, came from her startling authenticity in the video. She is transparent about her feelings and her fears, but what comes through is the impulse to tell the truth and to tell is straight to her audience.

Playing it safe never got anyone to trust any brand but maybe an airline. And even then, think how much brand affinity Southwest has, with i’s cheery flight attendants who sing songs and make cheeky jokes. People like what’s fun and they like what’s real. Just because something you feel is true to your story might not be the norm in your industry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it.

But not too many.

Unless your brand is built on risk-taking, it makes no sense to make a habit out of it. Consistency is key, and there’s only so much fumbling consumers will take. Don’t overshare, and don’t treat your brand’s social media accounts as a deeply personal outlet. Yes, social is a place to showcase brand personality, but there are kinds of personalities that social isn’t great for. Complaining too much, snark, overly emotional posts, and tedious commentary will get you nowhere and none of that comes off as authentic on social.

Own it.

Sometimes the fastest way to transparency is through apologizing. If something you try backfires, or you make an honest mistake, apologize and do it quickly. Simply owning your mistake in an honest, transparent way can authenticate your brand in a lasting way for your customers. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone can make a graceful apology.

Last things first: it should start from the top.

One woman alone does not create a transparent, authentic brand. Transparency must come from the top down. If, as CEO, you aren’t communicative about your processes or choices, your employees won’t feel comfortable. And you, as an employee, cannot communicate an authentic brand story that you don’t understand, haven’t had a hand in creating, or don’t believe. Before setting out to tell an authentic story on social, your company must first rally around 

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